On With the Show

Latter-day vaudevillian Danny O'Day hasn't let changing tastes or the loss of his beloved Gaslight Square keep him from his life's work

Comedian and song stylist Danny O'Day has been booked to perform in front of a monthly luncheon group. The venue for this half-hour performance is Midtown's Salad Bowl Restaurant.

Most folks over the age of 50 have been to the Salad Bowl, and its popular cafeteria serves as a magnet for Midtown seniors in particular. The Salad Bowl hosts every manner of speaking engagement and social club, and serves patrons in several rooms, including the famous "Bits 'n' Saddles" dining hall, which is advertised in neon out front. With its Eisenhower-era decor and the ever-present smell of bacon cooking in green beans, it's now the closest you'll get to the ambiance of the old Miss Hullings' downtown.

In short, it's the perfect place for the "Danny O'Day Show."
Today O'Day is set to entertain members of LIFT (Living Information for Today), an organization for widows put together by the Kriegshauser Mortuary. They get together once a month for lunch, fellowship and entertainment. Sometimes that means a small jazz combo or a ragtime-banjo player. A lawyer came once to discuss estates. This is a return engagement for O'Day, who performed for the club about a year ago.

It's a half-hour before showtime, and O'Day's loaded up a plate with barbecued beef, beer-battered cod, salad and, of course, green beans. A big man at age 73, he still looks fit. A boxer in his younger days, O'Day appears still capable of handling himself if the need arises. He exercises regularly, lacks not for confidence and drops in a sassy gag at a moment's notice.

When one of the organizers walks by, O'Day reaches out and taps her arm:
"Excuse me. Would you like to get married?"
"Oh, I've been married for 38 years," she replies.

O'Day raps his hands on the table theatrically. "That's too bad. Every time I meet a girl, either she's married or I am."

Closer to showtime, O'Day's still kibitzing with the three women at his table: Rosalie Poland, Betty Melby and Ida Mae Cole. His equipment, partly assembled, lies in a corner. Finally, after some comments from a travel agent, birthday greetings and other announcements, O'Day's introduced for a second time. Not quite ready, he slowly moves through final preparations on his equipment. Finally, the mike rattling into place, he starts.

"Well, how do you like my act so far?"
Some laughter.
"Before the show, a lady came up to me and said, 'Mr. O'Day, are you nervous?' I say, 'No.' She says, 'Are you sure you're not nervous?' I say, 'No, I'm not nervous.' She says, 'Are you absolutely positive you're not nervous?' I say, 'Lady, I've been in show business more than 50 years. What would give you the idea that I might be nervous?' She says, ''Cause you're standing in the ladies' room.'"

Some more laughter.
For the next hour, the jokes continue in this vein, interspersed with songs like "Camp Granada" and another Allen Sherman song set to the tune of the "Mexican Hat Dance" -- a number that wouldn't fly in some settings but draws snickers in this one. It's an hour show altogether, rather than the contracted half-hour, because he figured it was a good room and he'd "give 'em the full act."

What's maybe the most surprising is that he doesn't tailor his act to the group. They are widows. Their husbands have died. No matter. The routine's the routine:

"These other two drunks are sitting at a bar. One says, 'I just got a French poodle for my wife.' The other says, 'I wish I could make a trade like that.'

"Two more drunks are talking. One says, 'My wife's an angel.' The other one says, 'You're lucky. Mine's still living.'

"Another couple of drunks are talking. One of 'em says, 'What'd you get your wife for her birthday this year?' He says, 'I didn't get 'er nothin'. She didn't use the one I got her last year.' He says, 'What's that?' He says, 'A burial plot.'"

Seemingly, no one's offended.
"He goes for the older people," says Cole. "You can tell by those jokes."
Poland says, "I happened to be the type of person that laughs at anything. So I'm not that particular. When he goes around and tells these jokes, I can see how he lifts people's spirits."

As a 5-year-old, Daniel O'Day performed in local saloons.
His father was an accordion player, and it didn't take long for father or son to realize that when the kid sang, pennies rained down on the floor from the appreciative regulars. Young Daniel would sing another, then scramble over the wooden slats, picking up pocketfuls of change that he'd take to school the next day.

"Pennies were worth more then than they are now," O'Day says. "This was 70 years ago. You were rich.

"As a little kid, I always got up onstage, even when I was scared to death -- because I loved show business."

World War II broke out while O'Day was in his teens. Like many young men of the era, he fudged his documents to join the service underage, first as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps and later the Navy. Why? "Because there was a war going on."

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